Thursday, September 04, 2014

Coston Signals

At 7:30 pm on Friday, March 27, 1891 the #4 surfman from Ocracoke's Hatteras Inlet Life Saving Station spied a ship too close to the beach. According to the keeper's official report, the surfman "burned coston Signal and running alond [along] beach to ascertain Her condition. Seeing that She not Heeded His Signal burned another coston Signal."

When the surfman discovered that the ship (the 2-masted Spanish vessel, Borinquen) was in the breakers he "burned another coston signal."

You might wonder what a Coston Signal is. Invented by Martha Coston in 1859, these signals are "a very ingenious and effective semaphore" that uses three lights (white, red, and green) which, in combination, can represent the numerals 0 through 9, and the letters A & P. The widowed Mrs. Coston used pyrotechnics to create a simple but effective flare that could be used for signaling between ships, or between a ship and the shore.

Click here to read more about Mrs. Coston, and to view charts showing the codes used, and examples of the meanings of various combinations of letters and numbers. This web site also includes a visual that shows Coston Signals broadcasting the message P 2 9 3 A.

As it turned out, the Life Savers pulled their 1000 pound apparatus cart (as the "sea ran over the beach") to the wreck of the Borinquen. "Progress was slow," and they arrived at the wreck at 9:30 pm. A "bad current  [was] running abrest wreck," but the 27 crew members did not want to leave their ship.

The Life Savers "stayed on beach in case that the ship should break up." They built a fire on the beach, and remained all night and through the next day, until 3 pm. Meanwhile, the ship's captain had called for a wrecking company to pull his ship out of the breakers.

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is the story of late 19th century steamship traffic to Ocracoke, and the large Victorian hotel that accommodated the guests. You can read the article here:


  1. Anonymous9:00 AM

    I got a bang out of reading that. If there was a Woman's History Month , Mrs. Coston's contributions to Communications and Maritime History deserves at least a chapter. Also, Sounds to me, like the computer and binary code writers lifted a thing or two from her theory. I'd buy a T-shirt with her name and acoston's signals chart on it.

  2. Anonymous4:48 PM

    Did they use the Coston Signals to call the wrecking company ?

    1. Anonymous5:35 PM

      I think they used their cell phones.